Ten Fun Facts About Charles Darwin
Early this year, we posted trivia about Charles Darwin including the fact that he once confessed to having stinky feet. On this 150th anniversary of the publication of On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, we’re happy to bring you some more interesting tidbits thanks to the Neatorama blog.
1. Darwin Once Ate an Owl
Darwin was an inquisitive man. Sure he was curious about nature and all that science stuff, but he’s also a guy. So when he saw strange animals, he often wondered what they would taste like. The difference between Darwin and the rest of us is that he actually ate ‘em!
While he was at Cambridge University, Darwin joined the “Gourmet Club,” which met once a week to eat animals not often found in menus, like hawk and bittern (a type of wading bird in the heron family). His zeal for weird food, however, broke down when he tried an old brown owl, which he found “indescribable.”
But that one episode didn’t end Darwin’s weird gastronomic proclivities. During the voyage of the Beagle, he ate armadillos and agoutis (the rodents were “best meat I ever tasted,” he said).
In Patagonia, South America, Darwin ate a puma (it tasted like veal) and an ostrich-like bird called a Rhea. Actually, Darwin had been looking for this particular species of Rhea, only to find that he had been eating one all along. He sent back the uneaten parts to the Zoological Society in London, which named the bird Rhea darwinii after him!
In the Galapagos, Darwin ate iguanas and giant tortoises. He liked it so much he loaded up 48 of them aboard the Beagle, to be eaten on the journey back!
2. Darwin Wanted to Be a Doctor, But He Couldn’t Stand the Sight of Blood
Darwin attended Edinburgh University in hopes of becoming a physician like his father, but soon abandoned the idea because he couldn’t stand the sight of blood. So he decided to study divinity instead and become a rural cleric, which would fit his hobby of being a naturalist just fine (Source).
3. Darwin’s Nose Almost Cost Him The Voyage on the Beagle
The Captain of HMS Beagle, Robert FitzRoy, was about to embark on a survey expedition to South America, but he was afraid of the stress and loneliness of such a voyage (indeed, they have driven the previous captain of the ship to commit suicide). So FitzRoy asked his superiors for a well-educated and scientific gentleman companion to come along as an unpaid naturalist whom he could treat as an equal. The professors at Cambridge recommended then 22-years old Charles Darwin for the trip.
At first, Charles’ father Robert objected to the appointment – after all, such a voyage would take years and would get in the way of him being a clergyman. But Darwin’s uncle was able to persuade him not only to let his son go, but also support him financially.
Darwin and FitzRoy got together well, but later Darwin found out that he almost didn’t get picked for the voyage … on account of the shape of his nose!
“Afterwards on becoming very intimate with Fitz-Roy, I heard that I had run a very narrow risk of being rejected [as the Beagle's naturalist], on account of the shape of my nose! He was an ardent desciple of Lavater, and was convinced that he could judge a man’s character by the outline of his features; and he doubted wheather anyone with my nose could possess sufficient energy and determination for the voyage. But I think he was afterwards well-satisfied that my nose had spoken falsely.” (Source: Charles Darwin: His Life Told in an Autobiographical Chapter, and in a Selected Series of His Published Letters, by Charles Darwin – 1902)
4. Best Birthday Gift Ever: a Mountain!
For Darwin’s 25th birthday on February 12, 1834, Captain FitzRoy named a mountain after him. Yup, Mount Darwin. It is the highest peak in Tierra del Fuego.
A year earlier, Darwin and his shipmates were on a small island in the Tierra del Fuego archipelago when a huge mass of ice fell from the face of a glacier and plunged into the ocean, causing a huge wave. Darwin ran to the shore and saved the ship’s boats from being swept away. For saving everyone from being marooned, FitzRoy named the area Darwin Sound.
5. The Full Title of “On The Origin of Species”
You probably know that Darwin’s most famous work, outlining his theory of evolution, is On the Origin of Species.
But what most people don’t know is the full title: On the Origin of Species by means of Natural Selection, or the Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life. It was published in 1859, twenty years after his epic voyage (yes, he took his sweet time in publishing his work, which he only did because Alfred Russell Wallace came to the same conclusion of evolution and Darwin didn’t want to be left behind). A total of 1250 copies were printed and it went on sale for 15 shillings. It’s now valued at around $23,000.
In the 6th edition, the title was changed to The Origin of Species.
6. Darwin Didn’t Invent the Phrase “Survival of the Fittest”
That was Herbert Spencer, a philosopher and contemporary of Charles Darwin. After reading Darwin’s On the Origin of Species, Spencer wrote Principles of Biology in 1864. He coined the phrase “survival of the fittest” and extended Darwin’s theory of natural selection into the realm of sociology, ethics, and economics.
Darwin himself used the phrase in his 5th edition of The Origin and gave full credit to Spencer.
7. Darwin Married His First Cousin
Darwin was a logical man, and he approached the important issue of marriage like he would any problem. In The Correspondence of Charles Darwin, Darwin made careful pro and con list of marriage to his first cousin, Emma Wedgwood.
Under the title “This is the Question,” Darwin wrote in the “Marry” Column:
Children — (if it Please God) — Constant companion, (& friend in old age) who will feel interested in one, — object to be beloved & played with. — —better than a dog anyhow. — Home, & someone to take care of house — Charms of music & female chit-chat. — These things good for one’s health. —
Forced to visit & receive relationsbut terrible loss of time. — WMy God, it is intolerable to think of spending ones whole life, like a neuter bee, working, working, & nothing after all. — No, no won’t do. — Imagine living all one’s day solitarily in smoky dirty London House. — Only picture to yourself a nice soft wife on a sofa with good fire, & books & music perhaps — Compare this vision with the dingy reality of Grt. Marlbro’ St.
… and in the “Not Marry” column:
No children, (no second life), no one to care for one in old age.— What is the use of working ‘in’ without sympathy from near & dear friends—who are near & dear friends to the old, except relatives
Freedom to go where one liked — choice of Society & little of it. — Conversation of clever men at clubs — Not forced to visit relatives, & to bend in every trifle. — to have the expense & anxiety of children — perhaps quarelling — Loss of time. — cannot read in the Evenings — fatness & idleness — Anxiety & responsibility — less money for books &c — if many children forced to gain one’s bread. — (But then it is very bad for ones health to work too much)
Perhaps my wife wont like London; then the sentence is banishment & degradation into indolent, idle fool —
He concluded that he should marry, and wrote:
Marry – Marry – Marry Q.E.D.
It is ironic that the man who gave rise to the importance of genetics in natural selection chose to marry his first cousin (Darwin wasn’t alone in this – Einstein also married his cousin), but one thing is for sure: Darwin cleverly avoided adding more relatives to visit!
8. How Darwin Lost His Faith in Christianity
Darwin was actually quite a religious fellow when he began his voyage on the Beagle (he was fresh out of divinity school). Aboard the ship, Darwin was known to quote passages from the bible to rowdy sailors on board.
But something happened during the trip that made him less religious. Darwin saw slavery firsthand as well as the wretched living conditions of the natives of Tierra del Fuego and wondered why God allowed such inhumanities to happen (Source). Darwin became skeptical of the history in the Old Testament, yet still believed in the existence of God.
Darwin lost his faith when his daughter Annie caught scarlet fever and died at the age of 10. He wrote “We have lost the joy of the household, and the solace of our old age … Oh that she could now know how deeply, how tenderly we do still & and shall ever love her dear joyous face.” The heartsick Emma filled a small box with Annie’s small treasures and kept it until her own death. (Source)
From then on, Darwin continued to help the local church with parish work, but would go on walks while his family attended church on Sundays. When asked about his religious views, Darwin denied that he was an atheist, but called himself agnostic.
In 1915, Lady Hope claimed to have visited Darwin and witnessed his deathbed conversion back to Christianity. This was refuted by his children, who noted that his last words were to Emma: “I am not the least afraid of death – Remember what a good wife you have been – Tell all my children to remember how good they have been to me.” (Source)
9. Darwin was a Backgammon Fiend
After his return from South America, Darwin developed a life-long illness that left him severely debilitated or bed-ridden for long periods of time. Darwin consulted with more than 20 doctors, but the cause of his disease was never discovered (Wikipedia has a n interesting list of possible illnesses).
Over the years, with the help of Emma, Darwin developed a strict routine that seemed to help in alleviating the symptoms. AboutDarwin.com has an interesting glimpse into what everyday life was like for Darwin.
Of note is Darwin’s strict schedule for playing backgammon. Every night between 8 and 8:30 PM, Darwin would play 2 games of backgammon with Emma. He even kept score of every game he played for years!
10. Church of England Finally Apologized to Darwin
When Darwin’s work on the theory of evolution came out, the church attacked him vociferously. Now, 126 years after his death, The Church of England has apologized to Darwin:
Charles Darwin: 200 years from your birth, the Church of England owes you an apology for misunderstanding you and, by getting our first reaction wrong, encouraging others to misunderstand you still. We try to practice the old virtues of ‘faith seeking understanding’ and hope that makes some amends. But the struggle for your reputation is not over yet, and the problem is not just your religious opponents but those who falsely claim you in support of their own interests. Good religion needs to work constructively with good science – and I dare to suggest that the opposite may be true as well. (Source)